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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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School fees or school fleece'

Anumita Mukherjee studied in Class III of a reputable school in the Kidderpore area until her parents were forced to shift her to another institution.

The school authorities had suddenly increased the fees by 50 per cent and it was too much for the Mukherjees to bear.

In about a month, the state government, however, will ensure that the likes of little Anumita do not have to go through the pain of splitting with friends and teachers.

The Supreme Court had in a recent order said that unaided schools could only increase fees if they had in place the necessary infrastructure ' playgrounds, libraries, proper laboratories, classrooms and other amenities for students.

The court order has added momentum to the work of a team of academics and government officials who will spell out in a report how school fees are being raised and why irrational hikes, without corresponding improvement in facilities, should be stopped.

The team, formed following complaints from guardians about financial irregularities in private schools, is expected to submit its report to the government next month.

'The Supreme Court order is significant as it has prompted the government to react to guardians' complaints,' said Ismail Nehal, a member of the special team and president of the Association of Teachers of Anglo-Indian Schools.

'When schools suddenly decide to raise fees, there is nothing left for the guardians to do but obey. We have found irregularities in the way most schools increase fees ' without improving their infrastructure.'

His team is made up by representatives from both ICSE and CBSE schools.

Over 350 schools in the city do not enjoy government aid and reserve the right to increase fees but, over the years, many of them have been taking advantage of the independence and raising fees at will.

'We stumbled upon disconcerting facts during our probe. Some schools are charging students for their electricity bills and for non-existent games facilities. Some have been asking students to pay a big amount for development, though the building has not seen any change over the years,' a senior government official said.

'Several schools are charging lab fees from Class V students. Some schools profit Rs 4-5 lakh from power charges alone. This is bizarre,' he added.

Many schools increase fees every 6-12 months and the development fees hover between Rs 3,000 and Rs 10,000. Only 20-25 per cent of the schools, however, have playgrounds.

Two years ago, guardians of students of a school at Kalyani in Nadia first objected to the increase of fees on grounds unacceptable to them. The question then was whether a school authority has the right to raise fees or introduce development fees without upgrading the infrastructure.

'The school had not undertaken any development work, but had announced a steep fee hike. We decided to take the battle to the high court,' said Mujibar Rehman, the advocate representing the guardians.

But neither Rehman nor the guardians of the little-known school realised that a revolution was under way.

Justice Barin Ghosh decided that the guardians had reason to complain and said no school could increase fees without sufficient reason.

The school moved a division bench of the high court seeking an injunction on the earlier order, but was told that schools in Bengal could raise fees only if they could show proof of development work.

'Both orders were historic because for the first time an attempt was made to rein in errant schools,' Rehman said.

The developments in the courtroom ' in Delhi and in Calcutta ' set the ball rolling for the revolution. The Supreme Court, reacting to the fee hike by a school in Chennai, referred to Justice Ghosh's order and asked all governments to set up committees to review the fee-hike policy.

Calcutta High Court told guardians of a Ballygunge school a few months ago that the court orders were applicable to their case, too. And, weeks ago, the government decided to look into the irregularities.

School education minister Kanti Biswas said: 'Once we get the report, we will streamline the fee-hike process.'

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